As a lifelong follower of Milwaukee Bucks basketball, I have trained myself to always attempt to figure out how something good can go bad. Rather than look at how things can get better, I always focus on how things get can worse. Last season, the Bucks were incredible defensively, posting the league's second lowest defensive rating for the season, as well as the second lowest defensive rating in the season's second half. So, naturally, I had to write something (using the Point-Counterpoint format) that explains why the Bucks' fantastic defense could be much worse this season.
1. Greg Monroe is not Zaza Pachulia.
This seems quite obvious by simply looking at the players involved, but the potential defensive downgrades might not be as obvious. Though never seen as a particularly remarkable player, Pachulia played a major role in the Bucks' great defense last season. Pachulia was part of the veteran crew that effectively "quarterbacked" the Bucks defense and made it easier for the young wing players to cause havoc.
Pachulia understood his role and spent a lot of time patrolling the lane, which might explain why only five players were hit with more defensive three second violations even though Pachulia only played 24 minutes a night. For all his struggles as a shot-blocker, he knew that he was supposed to be very active in his help from the backside and made sure to make teams aware of his presence.
Aside from all the things he did well from a philosophical standpoint, he also managed to put up some pretty impressive numbers. There is obviously his oft-cited Defensive Real Plus Minus of 3.43 (seventh among NBA centers) and the four point difference in the Bucks' defensive rating with him on the floor versus off the floor. He also did a great job forcing turnovers, averaging the second most steals per 36 minutes among NBA centers. Though likely remembered for using his strength near the rim, Pachulia also did a fantastic job in pick and roll situations, forcing turnovers on a quarter of those possessions and limiting ball handlers to just .708 points per possession, the NBA's fourth-best mark.
Recently, Nylon Calculus' Seth Partnow took a deep dive into rim protection statistics and attempted to find the league's best rim protectors. In his breakdown, Partnow created an organizable set of data that helps show the differences between Pachulia and Monroe (as well as John Henson).
Partnow reasons that good rim protectors don't just force opponents to shoot a lower percentage at the rim, but also deter shots near the rim from being taken. Last season, Monroe struggled both with lowering opponent's shooting percentage at the rim and keeping them away from the rim to begin with. Though Pachulia wasn't a major distraction for opponents at the rim, he did a great job helping keep Bucks opponents out of the lane, something Monroe will need to improve next season. For all the value of rim protection, Pachulia's success in Milwaukee suggests paint deterrence could be just as valuable.
Counterargument: Though Monroe wasn't great at either aspect of rim protection last season, a majority of his time on the floor was spent with either Josh Smith or Andre Drummond. As has been mentioned many times at Brew Hoop before, Monroe put up great defensive (and offensive) numbers while on the floor alone without Smith or Drummond.
As mentioned above, it is important to remember that Greg Monroe isn't Zaza Pachulia. In fact, many would say he is much better than Pachulia. While Monroe won't be bringing the same veteran know-how to Milwaukee, game film would suggest he is more athletic, nearly as strong and likely has the intelligence to fill a similar role next season for the Bucks.
2. Jabari Parker (or any other young Buck) isn't Jared Dudley.
From almost the moment he stepped on the floor last season, Jared Dudley's presence in MIlwaukee was quite obvious. Following the very first game of last season, I wrote about the profound impact Dudley (and other veterans) could have on the growth of Milwaukee's young players and the ways that he could help the Bucks win games. As the season wore on, that impact become more tangible as Dudley and the rest of the Bucks' bench gang put up monster numbers in the first half of the season. Even after his late season injury, Dudley played through some pretty obvious pain to play a pivotal role in the Bucks' postseason run by allowing the Bucks to play small and force the Bulls into some matchup problems.
Dudley's departure has created a leadership void among the Bucks' wing defenders and may also lead to the Bucks defense being a bit quieter. Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have never been known as the most loquacious bunch on the floor, and without a smart veteran helping call out assignments, the Bucks' aggressive and free-flowing defense might not be quite the same next season. In particular, Parker looked every bit a 19-year-old rookie on the defensive end last season, struggling mightily by virtually any measure. So while talk of an opening night return and a physical transformation are encouraging, it's unlikely he comes anywhere close to filling Dudley's shoes defensively.
Counterargument: While the Bucks' young defenders might not be as talkative as Dudley, they have physical gifts that Dudley could never dream of matching. There may very well be times when the Bucks' defense moves slightly in the wrong direction, but their abundance of length and athleticism will allow them to make up for their mental mistakes.
Also, all three defenders will have the added benefit of a year of experience in Sean Sweeney's defensive system and all three are still quite young. Middleton and Antetokounmpo have shown improvement from year-to-year, so they should improve, even if just slightly, at recognizing the action of other teams and calling out defensive assignments.
3. Roster changes are not fun.
On December 26th, the Bucks played their first game without either Larry Sanders or Jabari Parker on the court, and they would continue to play without either player for the rest of the season. Before that day, their defense was not all that impressive. At that point, the Bucks were giving up 103.1 points per 100 possessions, ranking them 14th in the league in defensive efficiency. Much of this seemed to be due to the team still learning the defensive system rather than anything Sanders or Parker was doing in particular.
Milwaukee may suffer from an adjustment period again this season, as the Bucks have made a few roster changes over the summer with Dudley and Pachulia moving on and Monroe and Greivis Vasquez being brought into the fold. It may take both some time to learn the Bucks' defensive system, with Monroe's adjustment obviously affecting the Bucks' defensive effectiveness a bit more than Vasquez's.
Another question mark will be the status of Parker. With no one really sure of Parker's timetable in his return from an ACL tear, there is no telling how much time he will play on opening night and when he will assume his full role with the squad. His changing role could mean different players will be forced to adjust to playing with different five-man lineups throughout the start of the season, which could further negatively impact the defense.
Counterargument: The Bucks are in their second season in this defensive system. Last year, the entire team was forced to learn a brand new offense and defense, which means a two month adjustment period was altogether reasonable. With only two (three, if you count Parker) players that need to learn the ins and outs of the defense at the beginning of the season, their teammates will help them adjust quickly and the Bucks should easily be able to maintain a top five defense.
The Bucks were great defensively last season, but have made some changes that may make it more difficult for the defense to find success. It also may not, but as with almost everything in this upcoming Bucks season, it may be best for Bucks fans to temper their expectations...and maybe only expect a top ten defense.